BEIJING, Nov 10 – When Xi Jinping stood next to Hillary Rodham Clinton and addressed a high-powered lunch audience on the seventh floor of the State Department nearly three years ago, he was still China’s vice president and only the heir apparent to the Communist Party leadership. But even during that visit he spoke expansively of forging a “new type of great power relations” with the United States.
Now that Mr. Xi is president and has consolidated power as China’s undisputed leader, that phrase has taken on new significance. Mr. Xi used it at the shirt-sleeves summit with President Obama in California last year and has rarely failed to mention it in subsequent meetings with senior United States officials visiting China.
His government has adopted it as a mantra for describing how Washington and Beijing should interact, and it is almost certain to come up again when Mr. Xi hosts Mr. Obama here this week for their second summit meeting. But if there is no doubt the phrase enjoys Mr. Xi’s personal imprimatur, it has also clearly fallen out of favor with Mr. Obama and his aides. And that could mean some difficult moments between the two leaders in the days ahead — and continuing tensions between the United States and China for years to come.
There would seem to be little objectionable in Mr. Xi’s pitch for a “new type of great power relations,” which he describes as an effort to break a historical pattern of “inevitable confrontation” between world powers. But United States officials and Chinese analysts with ties to the government say Mr. Xi has a specific pattern of conflict in mind — that between a rising power such as China and an established, or declining power, which is how he sees the United States.
In discussing this concept, Mr. Xi takes care to emphasize that he believes there is room in Asia for two great powers to coexist and cooperate — as long as they treat each other as equals. But if China and the United States cannot find a way to establish such a “new type” of relationship, the result could be disaster, Mr. Xi warned in a meeting with American and Chinese officials in July.
For his part, Mr. Obama has said he welcomes China’s rise and wants to see Beijing play a greater role in regional and global affairs. But he and his administration have been less keen about the “new type” of relationship that Mr. Xi says he wants. On one level, the Obama administration has no quarrel with the view that a change in the balance of power is underway, and that the two nations should avoid situations that could escalate into conflict, said Kenneth G. Lieberthal, who served as director of China policy at the National Security Council under President Clinton.
Nor does Washington object to Mr. Xi’s prescription of increased cooperation where possible and greater candor over disagreements, he said. But Mr. Xi adds an ingredient to the mix that Washington finds unacceptable, Mr. Lieberthal said. “The Chinese keep saying the great power relationship requires respect for each country’s core interests,” he said. “We get off the train at that point because we cannot get a clear statement of what China’s core interests are.”
Are such interests limited to China’s claim over the self-governing island of Taiwan and the restive western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang? Or do they extend to the East China Sea, where there has been friction between China and Japan, Washington’s most important ally in Asia? Do China’s core interests also embrace the South China Sea as some Chinese voices have asserted over the objections of neighbors in Southeast Asia?
The Obama administration is unwilling to hand China a commitment to a principle that different Chinese officials define differently, Mr. Lieberthal said. As a result, Mr. Obama and his aides have tried to keep the “great power” language promoted by Mr. Xi at arm’s length. “Xi hasn’t repudiated it,” Mr. Lieberthal said, “and we don’t repeat the phrase.”
Some critics say Mr. Xi’s phrase is essentially code for establishing a Chinese sphere of influence in Asia, with the United States agreeing to quietly retreat from the region to minimize conflict. Others note that implicit in the Chinese talk of “great powers” is the notion that only China, the United States and Russia make the list. Left out of the discussions are the wishes of China’s neighbors, including American allies such as Japan and South Korea.
Wu Xinbo, director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said American reluctance to accept Mr. Xi’s formula was understandable. “There is a feeling that China might use it as a trick to get the United States to support China’s national interests,” he said, adding that the Obama administration appeared unwilling to cede much if any power to Beijing in the Asia Pacific despite its talk of welcoming China’s rise.
On the contrary, the administration appeared determined to cling to every shred of influence, Mr. Wu said, noting its continuing efforts to persuade allies not to join a new development bank in Asia led by China — a relatively minor initiative in the larger scheme of security issues in the region. As Mr. Obama backs away from Mr. Xi’s preferred formula for reshaping American-China relations, his challenge may be deciding where and how to establish limits on China’s ambitions — and where the United States might welcome or at least tolerate a larger Chinese role.
But setting such limits while also persuading Beijing to make concessions on issues of potential cooperation such as trade and climate change will not be easy, especially since Mr. Obama is viewed here as a lame duck who has been hobbled by his party’s defeat in the midterm elections. “Nothing much will happen because the Chinese have decided that they have two years to push the envelope, change facts on the ground and present the new administration with a new baseline,” a senior Asian diplomat said of the outlook for the rest of Mr. Obama’s term, speaking on the condition of anonymity per diplomatic protocol.
For example, China might ignore American warnings and try to expand its presence in the South China Sea, by stepping up efforts to make tiny islands accessible to its planes and ships or sending oil rigs for exploration in disputed waters as it did in seas off Vietnam earlier this year, he said. Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said Mr. Xi would not give up on his vision of a “new type” of relationship with the United States.
But with neither country willing to make concessions on major issues, the rivalry between the “great powers” is likely to intensify during the rest of Mr. Obama’s presidency. “Xi does not want to give Obama any big gift,” Mr. Shi said, “because he knows Obama can’t give anything back.”